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What's up with Severn Trent's water?

Doug's Blog

What's up with Severn Trent's Water?

Severn Trent's warning to its customers not to use water from the Castle Donington Reservoir are not entirely consistent with what a few of its customers are experiencing. And that's enough to start a panic.

It's time for water companies to learn a few more lessons from the Camelford Poisoning incident, and become more open and interactive with their customers.

12th March 2016

Handing out bottled water to the customers.
'Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!'

A 'Partnership' is a two-way arrangement.

Confused, what, me?

BBC Local Live: Derbyshire, 11th March 2016.

"Rachel Hambridge posted that she was left with a red brick stain on her bath that needed bleach to clear it . . ."

Er - you mean that it took bleach - contining, um, chlorine - to get rid of a stain that was supposed to have been caused by , , , umm . . . Chlorine?

OK, the 'Do Not Use' water incident around Derby looks like it's almost over now. But there's a bit of a nasty taste lingering (and no, it's not that chlorine again!) Once again the water sector seems to have been just that little bit less than informative about the lastest public water supply scare story to hit the headlines. Severn Trent Water tried valiantly to sort things out, and it seems to be all coming right in the end, but excitable media coverage and the chase for A Good Story blew the whole thing up yet again.

Late last night I got a phone call from a couple of ladies – one a GP – in the area fed by the water supply from the Castle Donington reservoir in Derbyshire. “Doug,” they asked, “What's going on? We've been warned not to use our water. Severn Trent Water says that it's got too much chlorine in it, but it doesn't smell of chlorine. And the bath is a horrid brown colour. How can chlorine make the water stain things brown, anyway?”

Very good questions, indeed. If the water supply has so much chlorine in it that it's not even safe to flush the toilet (might not that be a good thing, you might think, considering what goes down toilets?), does this mean that it might also wreck the biology of the sewerage works?

But if that were the case, then no one would ever be able to get even close enough to drink the stuff coming out of the taps anyway! See what I mean? Not exactly a convincing explanation, even if it turns out to be true.

Don't treat the customers like simpletons.

When a public water supply gets contaminated, even by supposedly safe chemicals, a lot of people get very frightened. A single anecdotal report from one household does not mean that everyone will necessarily notice the problem, or even experience it all all. But the media pounce on the scare stories, and make the most of them. Only by reponding to such problem reports - even if they are not typical at all - can the rumours be scotched before they start doing the rounds and growing by the telling.

Remember that some of the consumers in affected areas will have at least some scientific knowledge that helps them to examine what they're being told. They get picky; they think, "Hang on - that's not right. And it could affect
ME!", If they find a reason to get suspicious that someone isn't being straight with them, then that spells trouble - BIG trouble.

It's a familiar old problem, one that I had to deal with in the Camelford incident, down in Cornwall back in 1988. When there's something inconsistent in what people are being told about such incidents, even when there's no real risk to consumers, and this is ignored by the water provider, the word gets around very quickly.

And invariably, the stories start to manufacture themselves. They become self-inflating, then they run wild. After all, the world loves a conspiracy!.

People are like that. This is something that came out of the Camelford incident, and it taught the water industry a sharp lesson. There's only one way to deal with the public in such incidents, and here's how.

Getting a grip

First, water companies must give the people ALL of the information that they need, and as quickly as possible. If they don't then someone will pick up on any inconsistencies, and the rumours will start to fly, within minutes.

If the Company doesn't know what happened, it shouldn't invent, or even suggest, 'possible' stories. It should just admit it's in the dark, and people will understand (well a lot of them will, anyway!)

Think about this a moment. Just suppose for a moment that the tap water in grumpy old Jo Bloggs' house didn't smell strongly of chlorine. Or even that Jo, like many old folks, has simply lost his sense of smell - it's commoner than you think. He sniffs what comes out of his tap, and thinks, "That doesn't smell of chlorine, bloody idiots! It'll be fine.", and makes his tea regardless.

Then, a bit later, suppose it were to turn out that something rather nasty really was there after all, but it wasn't chlorine? Jo was right, but for entirely the wrong reason, and is now laid up (or worse) with a bad gut. His lawyer ( or even his Coroner) is going to have a field day.

Customers may be simple folk, but companies still have legal responsibilities to at least try to protect them from their all too predictable foibles! So if there are unanswered questioned, like those raised by Ms. Hambridge's brown bath above, they need to let the world know how they think it could have come about, when the facts appear to be at odds with what the customer is experiencing. If not, then the hyper-excitable media will grab it and run!

Second, the speed with which water flows through the amazingly complex water distribution networks can be quite remarkable and quite unpredictable - it changes hour by hour, as demand varies across the district. Later attempts to model what happened can never accurately tell the whole story.

A water company's reaction to monitoring an incident such as this ,and the resulting exposure of its customers to a possible hazardous product, is invariably too slow. It simply cannot cope with keeping a tab on exactly what's going on, where and when.

So it's impossible to estimate how much exposure people might have had if the incident does result in actual medical harm. That means it's more difficult to treat, too.

So, unless the incident really is very minor, Companies need to ask their customers
to collect samples of what comes out of their taps. And they need to tell them how to do it. This is just as important in trivial incidents as it is in Camelford-type disasters. We're not talking here about collecting formal evidence for some future Court hearing, but just getting the best possible picture to minimise any risks to public safety - if not this time, then at least to help prepare for what might happen in the future.

(Yes, yes, I know the Company lawyers will throw a fit at this! But such 'amateur' evidence would have little weight in a trial - I know - I've been there, many times, as an 'Expert'! The Companies' primary duty is to the public, not their Board Members, but doing this would still be in their interests anyway.)

Only by recruiting the public to help study such emergencies - pure Crowd-Sourced Citizen Science - will the Companies (and we) learn how the threats to public safety might be controlled in future. Incredibly, even almost 30 years later, we still do not know exactly how the contaminated Camelford water got spread around North Cornwall. The South West Water Authority, which was not today's private sector Company, did not even start sampling until a whole day after the incident started. That was long after most of the contamination had already passed through the system.

(And even fifteen years later, it hid the times that the samples were collected from the people tryng to model the system in the Inquiry. Very bad practice,that!)

Think more 'out-of-the-box' about where your product is going

And third, the Companies should start to think a bit more clearly about what happens to their product once it gets into people's homes and businesses.

Most modern homes have a
direct mains water supply to their cold water taps. Once any bad water has been flushed out of that part of their domestic water system, there's no residual risk.

But many old houses still have
cold water header tanks – my old water mill in Camelford did, and the contaminated water lurked there for a week whilst we switched over to drinking from the old well there until the incident was over. And that turned out to have been lethal.

But modern homes store hot water, so if some is run off (for a bath, for instance) while contaminated water is passing through the nearby distribution network, some will end up in the hot tank. Holiday Parks and static caravans may also store some cold water; swimming pools may be topped up, and so on.

Food processors may use cold water to make sauces that they keep to use when preparing their products. Do any of these have water stored from earlier in the day when an incident was first noticed?

If there's the slightest risk that any such water storage systems of food ingredients might be contaminated by such an incident, then people must be warned to clear them out immediately, and not use them.

Finally, be straight with the media and the people

Many consumers will have used the Internet to try to find out what's going on. The BBC's latest report quotes a Severn Trent 'spokesman' as saying that, "It looks like there's been over-chlorination, Once we've got through this incident and we've flushed the water through the system, we can go back, take a look and see exactly what happened." .

'Looks like'? 'See exactly what happened'? Don't you think that that's being just a little bit vague?

Even if chlorine really is the cause of the current problem, Severn Trent's statement makes it look like it still does not know what went on. That means that a lot of its customers think so too.

When that happens,people start asking questions, and occasionally find someone who knows the answer, as I did after the Camelford Incident. If it were to turn out that anyone was being a little economical with the truth, or even just expressing an honest but unfounded opinion, they will be found out. And that's very bad for Public Relations.

So just tell people how it is. All of it. Respect is not something that is granted automatically - it has to be earned.


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